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It’s time for a showdown on the Western Range

Essay by Dan Dagget

Agriculture – February 2002 – Colorado Central Magazine

SOME FIGHTS can’t be settled with words. That, I believe, is the case with the battle over whether grazing should be removed from public lands in the American West.

Anti-grazers have been trying to get cows off these lands for more than a hundred years, and for just as long ranchers and their allies have been battling them to a standstill. As taxpayers, we have poured billions of dollars into this standoff, funding legislation, regulation, lawsuits and range improvements, and all we’ve got for our money is a century of ill-will and divisiveness.

That’s why I propose that we settle this standoff in a way that’s as Western as our sublime scenery and wide open spaces — with a good, old fashioned showdown, backed up, of course, with a wager.

What’s to settle? Everyone knows that the rangelands of the West are overgrazed, trampled and polluted with cow splats. And everybody knows who’s to blame — welfare ranchers and their ravenous cows and sheep. Some critics claim that livestock have wreaked more havoc on the West than all the bulldozers and chainsaws combined. Some even say that the damage livestock have created may never heal.

So, what’s the hold up? Getimoff and lockitup! That’s the way to save the range, right? If that’s what you believe, I’ve got a challenge for you.

I’m willing to bet that if we took two identical pieces of Western rangeland side by side, and you used the getimoff approach on your side, and I put cows on my side — lots of them — and left them there until they had eaten just about everything — which might happen very quickly — and then I took them off until the plants grew back and kept repeating that, my side would be healthier than yours. It would be greener, with more wildlife, and less bare dirt.

Would you jump to seal the deal with a handshake before I changed my mind? Wait: There’s a couple of things you ought to know.

I first made this challenge four years ago in a magazine that was distributed nationally, and no one took me up on it. Because that magazine was read mostly by ranchers, I made the offer again, in the newsletter of the Arizona chapter of the Sierra Club. Again, no takers. In December 2000, I made the challenge again at the First National Conference on Grazing Lands, and I even offered to let the getimoffs set the criteria by which we would judge the winner. Still no takers.

THERE’S A REASON for that. Here in the West there’s been a change in the way some ranchers manage their animals. Some have begun concentrating their animals by means of temporary fences, herders, or tasty enticements and moving them around the land in the manner of a herd of bison pursued by wolves or Native American hunters. Grazing in this way, livestock don’t overgraze, but they do mow, de-thatch, reseed, and fertilize as natural grazers do. In other words they perform the same functions you and I perform to keep our own grasslands — our yards — green and healthy.

These methods have been used to restore health to lands damaged by mining, off-road vehicles, road-building, catastrophic wildfire, and even overgrazing. It has even been used to combat global warming by removing carbon from the air and sequestering it in the roots of plants of restored grasslands. Surprisingly, this technique works best where the land has been damaged the most.

What that means is the showdown has already happened, and the Getimoffs lost. You don’t know that because no one told you, or at least no one told you in a way that got your attention. If any of these victories were covered in your local media, they were buried on the last page of section Z as a (yawn) successful range restoration.

That’s why I’ve made this challenge and will keep making it. So that, if the getimoffs ever do accept, their loss will be reported somewhere in section A as a defeat for the reigning environmental bully in the continuing War for the West. Then you’ll finally get to read about it, and the debate over how to manage public lands will at last be taken out of the realm of outdated assumptions and based on who gets the best results. When that happens, all of us — even the getimoffs — will be winners.

Dan Dagget is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News in Paonia, Colorado ( He is an environmentalist who writes in Flagstaff, Arizona.